A great collaboration is a wonderful thing and we have one. Sometimes we call it four-handed piano, because even though it's cooking, there's something about it that seems musical, even choreographed.
We began cooking together 11 years ago. We met when Sheryl needed an assistant to help her style photographs for a food column in The Boston Globe Magazine (it's been running for 20 years). Julie had cooked with celebrity chef Todd English, when he was just starting out at a popular restaurant named Michela's. Sheryl had lunch there one day with her editor and Michela Larson introduced them.
When cooks get together initially, they eye one another warily this probably happens in every trade and we were no different. Does she have "good hands?" one of us wondered. Is her technique correct? Does her food taste good? What kind of cooking does she do?We passed one another's scrutiny right away, mainly because we think about food in a similar way: we're not restaurateurs and we think people at home shouldn't pretend to be. Food should be simple. It should have lots of flavor, but not lots of components. You shouldn't have to spend all day Saturday in the kitchen cooking for company. That's what we did 20 years ago, but it doesn't suit today's lifestyle.
In the kitchen, when we're cooking together, Julie will begin sautÅ½ing onions in a skillet and the phone might ring. When she answers it, Sheryl checks the onions to make sure they aren't burning, and proceeds with her recipe. When the phone call is done, Julie returns to the onions while Sheryl turns to another recipe. There's no discussion of who did what. One of us steps in where the other left off. That's the choreography part.
Yes, that seamless quality demands trust, but we're compatible in other ways: we're both very tidy, we don't take shortcuts even when we get tired and we have similar notions of what, beyond the cooking, should happen in the kitchen.
We're there to enjoy ourselves. You can be very serious about food, as we are, but preparing it and thinking about it should be fun and creative. Before we cook, we always discuss what we'll do, draw up a list, and make a tentative plan, so we're not wasting our time. We divide the shopping, which isn't as much fun as skating around the kitchen.
Then, once we begin, we talk about the food. The soup was too thick the last time we made it, or the pork was no longer moist, or the bacon flavor overwhelmed a recent dish. We correct these details. Then we decide who is cooking what and we go to work.
Then the fun begins: We talk about books we're reading, our children, problems of the world. We've got pads of paper on the counter and we take cooking notes as we go along, so we've got a record of everything we're making. We're building on what we've done in the past. A recipe for fish and chips, for instance, produces beautiful spears of oven-fried potatoes but the fish isn't crisp. So we decide that instead of plain white crumbs, we should use panko, the Japanese crumbs that make everything taste crunchy.
When we're done, we each take something for our own suppers and then deliver the rest of the food to someone who isn't feeling well or needs a hand. We get the dishes to their front door. It's another way we're alike. Sheryl Julian is the food editor of the Boston Globe. She trained at the Cordon Bleu Schools in London and Paris. Julie Riven worked at Michela's restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was the cook at Roxbury Latin School, a private boys' school in Boston. She studied at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. The Way We Cook: Recipes from the New American Kitchen ($27, 400 pages, ISBN 0618171495) was published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin.